There are no actors in the film “Caesar Must Die,” at least not in the conventional sense.

The Italian documentary film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and played during the first weekend of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The film, which was directed by brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, opens abruptly with the camera directly upon the face of an anguished man. He looks around frantically to the men surrounding him, his torment accentuated by the vibrant red and blues they wear. Finally another man says, “Fly, Brutus, Fly,” and we realize this is the final scene of Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar.

The scene comes to an end and, as the actors line up for bows, the audience stands up in ovation. The bows then fade into the image of an empty theater. The camera comes back to the men on stage, who have switched togas for jeans and jackets and are being led by officials back to where they come from: the high-security wing of Rebibbia prison, in the outskirts of Rome.

The film suddenly switches from vivid colors to a stale black-and-white; it’s six months prior and the warden announces that prison will be putting on the Shakespearean masterpiece.

From the beginning, the documentary plays out wholly as a humanistic one. The rehearsals, which take place primarily in the prison, reveal the inmates’ dark memories as they deeply connect to Shakespeare’s dialogue. As one actor reads his lines, he expresses a familiarity toward the literature. “It seems as if Shakespeare knew my home,” he says.

The music throughout the film, which is comprised of dark strings and low horns, borders on cheesy and reflective. However, given the subject, the music allows for the pathos of the experience to emerge.

The film closes just as it began — with the final scene of the play. However this time we recognize the actors, we know which ones off the stage are humorous, brooding, or sentimental. Finally, three “actors” return to their cells: Cosimo Rega (Cassius), Salvatore Striano (Brutus) and Giovanni Arcuri (Caesar). As Cosimo walks into his cell, he looks straight into the camera and says, “Since I have known art, this cell has become a prison,” closing the film on a morose but eloquent note.

The film, which lasts a mere 76 minutes, constantly blurs the line between fact and fiction, playing up the prisoners’ relationships and personal dramas. Nevertheless, by doing so, it heightens the themes at the center of Julius Caesar — friendship, guilt and betrayal — by connecting them back to the experiences of the inmates. “Caesar Must Die,” at its core, is provocative not only in that it examines the power of art in unconventional circumstances, but in that it also reveals the humanity of the prisoner through art, and breaks the boundary between the lawful and the lawless.

A version of this article appeared on page 7 of February 7th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.